“Trapped”… A beautifully acted, directed (if one-note) survival drama

Posted on March 19, 2017

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Spoilers ahead…

In 1964, Sunil Dutt directed and acted in Yaadein, an experiment that had just Dutt on screen, except towards the end, where we see his family in silhouette. It was the story of a man who comes home and finds his wife and children missing, and spends the rest of the film alone, “trapped” in the past, inside his memories. Five decades later, Hindi cinema gets its second one-man show of a movie. At least for the most part.

In Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped, Rajkummar Rao plays Shaurya. Like the Dutt character, he spends most of the movie alone, boxed into four walls – but the difference is that he’s literally trapped. He moves into the 35th floor of a high rise named Swarg (heaven), and sinks, ironically, into hell when the main door slams shut with the keys dangling outside. This is a movie that likes to play with names. The building opposite the one where Shaurya endures endless dark nights of the soul is blithely called Sunshine. And what about Shaurya himself? The name invokes mythical, battlefield-worthy valour. The man is afraid of mice.

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Like all survival films, Trapped is about the logistics of escape. How this thing comes of use. How that option is tried out. There’s a click-clack monotony to this sequence of events, and some of them, frankly, are unconvincing. What happens to the TV set Shaurya flings out of the balcony? Did the watchman below never walk past it, never wonder where it came from? And the slingshot that Shaurya designs may suggest a modern man’s return to atavism – it’s fun to see the film’s pace switch to slo-mo and the soundtrack switch to rock to complement Shaurya’s zero-to-hero transformation – but I found it far-fetched.

When the Tom Hanks character, in Cast Away, learns to spear a fish, it’s taken him years – you totally buy that this city slicker has turned hunter-gatherer. Trapped plays out similarly – Shaurya talks to a rat the way Hanks spoke with his volleyball – but it lacks the earlier film’s emotional resonance. Maybe it has to do with the setting. When a man is lost amidst nature, or when a woman is lost in space (as in Gravity), we are put in our rightful place. We are made to feel the insignificant newcomers to the cosmos that we are. The vastness of a metropolis, in contrast, isn’t much, and we feel escape is just a matter of time. It’s when, not whether.

But with a city, a different dimension kicks in. The TV channel that Shaurya and his former roommates keep watching is called Wild TV, and its Darwinist themes get grafted onto the city. In this concrete jungle, too, only the fittest survive. In a way, Trapped is a companion piece to Motwane’s Udaan, where a boy was trapped and sought to escape. The flat in this film is like the father in that one: cold, remote, unmoved about the plight of the creatures that share its space.

In an exquisitely put-together scene, Shaurya fashions a kind of red flare-light and waves it from his balcony at night. We cut to a long shot of the city. You have to squint to see Shaurya’s light, at the centre of the screen, in the midst of the millions of lights around. In another wonderful instance of editing, Shaurya sets things on fire hoping that the blaze will catch someone’s attention, and then, as the flames threaten to spread, he rips his T-shirt off and tries to extinguish them. We cut abruptly to the morning, to the city outside, coolly indifferent to Shaurya’s suffering. It’s not the calm after the storm. It’s the calm outside the storm, which city-dwellers are left to brave themselves.

The leanness and one-note-ness of the conceit allows us to project onto the film any number of urban-nightmare metaphors. Perhaps the average city-zen is like a rat trapped in a cage. Perhaps the higher you rise, the lonelier you become. (A flat on the 35th floor is so far above the hubbub of the city, it’s practically like the island Hanks found himself in.) Perhaps it’s about being alone despite being surrounded by flats, for doors are always closed and human interaction is all but absent.

The film, thus, lends itself to be read as complex allegory. Shaurya, in contrast, is touchingly simple. Unlike the protagonist of a psychological drama like Repulsion – another locked-door horror movie – Shaurya comes with no baggage. He wants the most basic things. Pav bhaji with lots of butter. A girl to marry. A flat to live in. A job that gives him money. So it’s easy to see why Shaurya listens to a shady dealer and moves into the flat in just one day. Because if he doesn’t get the flat, he won’t get the girl, Noorie (the wonderful Geetanjali Thapa), who’s getting married in two days. It’s taken him quite a bit of effort to get her to like him, and if she disappears, he’ll have to go through, all over again, the mortification of flirting rituals that don’t come easily to him. The point where the title appears hints that these relationships are some kind of trap too. Noorie tells Shaurya she’s about to get married. Black screen. “TRAPPED.”

The Noorie portions are the film’s weakest. They’re so compressed that the romance is generic – they’re both constructs, not characters. So by the end, when we get a wordless scene between them – he reaches for her hand, she pulls away – the gestural melodrama feels out of place, too monumental for this low-key relationship. And Noorie’s appearance in a flashback yields Trapped’s most embarrassingly literal scene. It rises from Shaurya hesitating to carve up a pigeon he’s killed. We segue into a debate about the ethics of eating meat, when a more fascinating fact stares us in the face, that even non-vegetarians might balk at becoming butchers. It’s one thing to enjoy a burger. It’s quite another to hack away at a cow. A point about class is made much more elegantly, when one of Shaurya’s “help me” messages (written on scraps of cardboard) lands by the watchman, who’s unable to decipher it. It doesn’t occur to Shaurya that he could have written the message in Hindi too. How many of us think about the others – the literal others – we share our cities with?

Even at a 100-something minutes, Trapped feels a tad stretched, but Rajkummar Rao ensures that the film is never less than watchable. Shaurya is an extension of the shy-guy character he played in Kai Po Che – except that there’s very little psychology, and so the actor has to rely entirely on his physicality. He keeps finding new things to do. A small, smug smile when he sees Mumbai far below the balcony of his new flat. A little Indian war dance (more like little hops of joy) when one of his ideas succeeds. Or even the quickness with which he removes his glasses so Noorie won’t tease him about them. At one point, Shaurya so parched, he pees into a saucepan and drinks it. Many people in the theatre laughed, and I wondered about our audience and the kind of films people like Motwane want to make. It’s a wonder they themselves don’t feel trapped.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi